This week’s obsession: King Cake
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! At least in south Louisiana it is (and trust me we’re all singing this song right now!). Carnival has just begun, the city is brimming with excitement, and everything you can find to eat there has been dyed purple, green, and gold. Which means your tongue will be, too. Just embrace it because IT’S KING CAKE SEASON!!! I look forward to this season all year. And I think the fact that I’m such a traditionalist about my king cake it is what builds all the hype for me. For starters, here’s a PSA for all of you about King Cake Season: King Cake should only be served between Jan. 6 (Epiphany) and Mardi Gras day. If you are eating it any other time of the year, you are out of bounds and will not be allowed back into Mardi Gras for a minimum of one year. (I met with all the krewes. It’s been decided.)
For those of you not familiar with Carnival traditions and who are wondering what on earth I’m yapping on and on about, here’s a brief explanation of my beloved King Cake. French Catholics from back in the day used to make puff pastry cakes filled with almond cream (called galettes des rois) to celebrate Epiphany - the day the newborn Jesus was presented to the Three Wise Men, who were kings (some might also call this "King's Day" or "Three Kings Day". It's all correct.). Epiphany corresponds to a pagan festival of the winter solstice called Saturnalia, which was celebrated by naming a king or queen for the day based on who got a bean in their slice of cake. In more recent history, we've adapted this tradition to instead hiding a plastic baby figurine representing the newborn Jesus in each king cake :)
When I was in elementary school, we would have a class party every year on Jan. 6 called an Epiphany party (I went to Catholic school from Kindergarten until I graduated from high school, which is how we got away with all of this). The room mothers would show up with all kinds of snacks like chips and pretzels, ice cream sundae materials, and most importantly: the first king cake of the season. Whomever got the baby in their slice of king cake at that party was obligated to bring the next king cake for the class, and we had a king cake supplied by students every Friday from Epiphany until we went on Mardi Gras break. #FatCity Unfortunately, as more and more tourists came to the city for Mardi Gras - who would scarf down king cake without learning about the traditions (or reading the labels that CLEARLY STATE that there’s a toy baby hidden in the cake) and would choke on the plastic figurine - bakeries could no longer hide the baby in the cake, and have often resorted to just setting the plastic baby on top of the cake. #tourists ::insert mega eye rolls here::
Now I keep calling it a cake, but really it’s more like a giant cinnamon roll. The dough is very similar to a sweet French bread with a cinnamon swirl throughout. The king cakes I grew up eating were what we would now call “plain” or “unfilled”. Sometimes lemon, cherry, or cream cheese filled king cakes would be available, but really that’s about it. Nowadays in New Orleans, chefs try to outdo each other with whatever crazy/delicious concoctions they can think of to fill king cakes with (for example: praline, apple and goat cheese, bacon/banana/peanut butter, and even boudin!). I myself have made a cookie butter filled king cake (which you all know how much I love cookie butter!!) and cinnamon cream cheese king cake macarons, but when it comes down to it, when the season starts all I want is a plain king cake.
Which is exactly what I made for myself (and, ya know, anyone else who wants some. I can’t really eat all this cake!) this week. Just a plain yet delicious king cake. Look at that beauty!! I’m really loving the colors on this one because I used luster dust to add a little more sparkle to it (I never liked that the “gold” sugar topping was always just a shade of yellow), which is exactly what I needed to add a little pizazz to this island to make up for the lack of Carnival festivities right now. (I even dreamt about all of this sparkle and glitz last night because of how sparkly the cake looked when I served it! Such happy dreams this time of year!)
My tip for you this week is about something that I did differently with the dough. I didn’t braid the dough like most recipes instruct you to do. I only split the dough into two segments and twisted the two strands together. This made the dough much easier to manage and still presented just as nicely as a braid. So my tip for you is that you don’t have to go through the whole process of braiding dough if it gets a bit overwhelming. It is much more manageable to twist two strands of dough together instead (and it still looks GREAT!).
Also I want to mention that I am so happy that I have a neighbor who graduated from school in New Orleans and has a vast appreciation for the culture there, so it’s really heartwarming that I get to share this little tradition with her. When I told her that I was making a king cake for this weekend, she asked me if I was going to hide a baby in it. I told her no because there’s really no point. Whomever gets the baby wouldn’t be able to go out and buy another king cake (by the way, that is the actual tradition, not just something we did in elementary school. Louisianians actually abide by the rule that if you get the baby, you buy the next king cake. And we eat king cake continuously until Mardi Gras day, so you have plenty of opportunities to get the baby.) since they don’t sell them on island, so I’m willing to forgo this one little piece of tradition for now. Which also opens up a whole new realm of possibilities because as you can imagine, when you know there’s a plastic baby hidden in the cake, you tend to go for extremely thin slivers of cake so as not to get it. But now. NOW! There is no chance of getting the baby in your cake slice, so bring on the big pieces!!!
When I lived in New Orleans, it somehow turned out that 95% of my friends were transplants into the city, so they were all fairly new to this king cake tradition. When they would ask me where my favorite place was to get a king cake, I couldn't really answer because the place that makes the quintessential king cake in my mind (and heart) no longer exists.
The king cakes that we always ate in elementary school, or at just about anywhere in the 90's, always came from a ubiquitous bakery in the New Orleans area called McKenzie's Pastry Shoppes (you can still see the sign for the original McKenzie's on the front of The Creole Creamery on Prytania St. if you're interested). This was the only place to really get king cake back in the day. And it seems I'm not the only one who remembers it as being the "it" place to get a king cake. But after it closed in 2000, I just felt lost about which king cake was supposed to be the new staple, or the new "go to".
So if you, like me, feel at all unsure about where to get your king cake from, I would certainly suggest stopping by the King Cake Festival (we have a festival for everything in that city) on January 26 to sample king cake slices from MANY different restaurants and bakeries (I recommend two things for this festival: 1) bring a pen and take notes so you'll remember which king cake you liked the best and know who to return to for the rest of the Carnival season, and 2) bring a friend or two to help with the sampling/to ward off getting diabetes in one afternoon. I speak from experience on both of these.) to make your own assessment of the deliciousness. Or if you're one of my island friends and can't make it to the mainland for King Cake Fest, it looks like you're stuck with me as your only king cake option, so send me a message, let me know what kind of filling you want, and I'll make it happen! But whatever you do, make sure you get some king cake in you!!
Laissez les bons temps rouler et happy eating, y'all!
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